Was I ever drawn to literature for literary reasons? I always envied those I thought drawn to literature in purity, in simplicity, who could speak easily of the plays of Dryden, or of Wilder's latinate prose. I think of my friend's flat, whose small living room is ringed inside by two sets of bookshelves, until there are only two chairs on which to sit, and your knees almost touch.
Books - thousands of them, and in the finest editions. An original Johnson Dictionary; a complete Dickens in one edition, a complete Trollope in another. But more - much more, for he had records, too. Didn't I owe to him my introduction to classical music - to Sibelius, to whom we listened conducting his own fifth symphony? And how he could speak (he still can) of music, of literature - of Keats, of Donne, of any composer you can name!
He spoke; he speaks, and what can I say? The books I like seem shells of books, the music, blasted music. Sometimes he'll buy books I recommend, and I know they are lost there among the others he owns. Less imposing, less weighty - it is not that my friend is blind to modernity; far from it. He is not closed minded. Read Gardner on Eliot, he pressed. And so I did, finding my own edition (he never lent out books). Have you read Stevens?, he said, and read The Man With the Blue Guitar out loud - and I saved up and bought the Collected Poems.
Why was it different for me? Periods of unemployment, periods of illness, I could say (but illness and unemployment were one) in suburbs adrift from the streaming of life, from like-minded friends, from official culture. And no money - don't forget that. Too skint for the theatre, for the out-of-town gallery, too skint for the cinema and the taxi home from the cinema (the suburbs are too dispersed; you need a car, but I didn't learn to drive, not then). Dependent, for a long time, on the kindness of others: a cheap room in a house, in exchange for keeping an eye on the alcoholics and drug addicts who lived there.
Yes, all of that, but broader than that: a comprehensive school education, seven years of poor schooling. Taught literature by kindhearted incompetents who would ask you to draw what you felt about Iris Murdoch's The Bell or L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between. He would disappear to smoke and then photocopy our drawings into a booklet: that was our English lesson; that was how we were supposed to learn.
No different for the other subjects. Teachers in the sciences did not mark our work. 'Swap books' - but we marked our own. What high marks we achieved! Until it came to the examinations, but happily, they, by this time, were easy enough for us all to pass, and pass comfortably. And then, in the sixth form (what a mistake to have gone on to the sixth form), 'free periods', tracts of the day when nothing happened - no teaching, just time for boredom and flirting and mischief and wandering.
Rebellion: I ordered Stephen King's It for my school English prize. But against what was there to rebel? No official culture among our hippie teachers. No sense of constraint. Absurd to miss it, of course - that constraint. And even when it came, in the shape of my cultured, much older friend - himself a schoolteacher - I thought I must have some deficiency of taste. I was not ready, in my first, dreary job in a warehouse, for Jane Austen.
Happily, a television series by Malcolm Bradbury dramatised scenes from Crime and Punishment one week and, I think, The Magic Mountain the next. I ordered the latter from the local bookshop and awaited it excitedly. Eight pounds: had I ever spent that much? I read Mann as summer turned to Autumn - hundreds of pages, sometimes dull in the reading, but the whole, the expanse of the book, the way Castorp fell from his position as a visitor to a friend in a sanatorium to a patient himself. Fell until not months passed, but whole years - he was a bad case and then, when released, he left for the war. And wasn't I, too, falling?
I became unemployed, and then found my way to university. I shut myself in my room, barely attending my course, and read. Again, happy and unhappy encounters with those happy in book culture. You must read Anna Karenina - and The Heart of Darkness - and Huckleberry Finn. Whole days reading. The first third of Proust. Musil. Rilke's Malte. Pessoa's Disquiet. And gradually, out of all of this, a taste was forming. But was it taste?
No one would be so simple as to think literature is the mirror of the world. But nor is it escape. Whatever the connection between the book and the world, it must pass through a life, a particular life. In my case, what had I experienced? The retreat of culture, and all intellectual life, it seemed, to a few remote islands - my friend's flat, some lecturers at university. And yet a disappointment at that same culture, that same intellectual life. It was a relic, and my friend's flat a reliquary. But nor did I want the books I read to be contemporary - or racy. What then did I want?
It seems laughable now to read what I inscribed on the inside cover of Bataille's Inner Experience: 'the book of books. What I was waiting for.' Absurd - but it was as though not only my present had changed as a result of that encounter, but my past, too. It had been leading up to this point, preparing me. In the same year, Blanchot's The Space of Literature, and, later, The Step Not Beyond, and The One Who ...
There's a certain point in his letters to Felice when Kafka suddenly uses the word, literature. Suddenly - and momentously. I am nothing but literature. I am made of literature - this reacting against Felice's phrase - what was it? - 'literary interests.' Kafka was made of literature, but of what was he made? I learnt from Blanchot of Holderlin, for whom the gods had departed - and of the madness that touched him as he tried to write in the absence of God, thickening that absence, knowing it as the indeterminable that had to come to form in the poems.
I learnt of Rilke's search for a proper death, and that death was never proper - that we must die, in our modern world like flies. But in the wake of God, and after propriety, wasn't it possible to sense what they had both concealed? Not the existentialist pathos of a life man must make for himself - virile man, resolutely braced against others, preserving his relationship to death, the most sacred, but that doubling of the world that resonates when the words of a poem thicken and grow sonorous, when rhythm becomes important and words search for a way to indicate what they cannot reach.
Or when a work of prose text no longer mirrors a world replete and substantial in itself, a world of certainty, and populated by characters with a commendable psychological realism, and events that reproduce so wonderfully what might occur on the other side of the page. Not the plausible - but not the fantastical either; not the retreat to an altered world, even as it is still our world.
I learned from Blanchot - and then from others to whom he referred, explictly and implicitly, in The Space of Literature, of a kind of doubling - the difference between things and what they are, and that difference a differentiation, an anorganic life. To think the becoming of being - wasn't this to allow that the world might be different - that it might become differently and there might be a way of joining it in becoming? Another life; the relinquishment of a personal life. A life - an impersonal streaming that passes through the well-upholstered rooms of the nineteenth century novel. Dickens knew it, Hardy - but Egdon Heath only wears through into the novel Tess, it does not alter its form, and Rider's death is only an incident.
Lawrence calls it a 'metaphysic', that bundle of ideas he required in order to begin writing his novels. Doesn't a reader, too, need a metaphysic of sorts? Until that point, I would say I was lost, lost in my reading. I read this, and then that, without know why it was to a cluster of authors and books to which I continually returned. Beckett and Heidegger had only a few books in their workrooms, I learned, but according to what principle could I pare them down?
A metaphysic. Isn't this what literature students receive when they come to Theory? In the wake of culture, of the reliquary of the canon, there's too much confusion. I used to read Leavis with envy: what certainty! But there is can be certainty in philosophy, and in that philosophy co-opted into what came to be called Theory.
Still, I am glad I came to philosophy by myself, and through literature. Glad, that is, I had read Rilke and Kafka before The Space of Literature, that I had already discerned what I thought were common concerns in my favourite writers. And also glad - more distantly - that I had lived somewhat before I read philosophy. Lived - and had therefore a kind of metaphysic to sort my philosophical reading.
And in those days, too, I wrote - just for myself, and found certain themes coalescing that began to resonate with what I read in literature and in philosophy. I had a metaphysic at last, a heuristic; now I was not a dabbler, reading this and then that. I knew the next task must be to sharpen this instrument, to will that my own past, my education, my unemployment occurred exactly as it did.
I made another friend, another cultured man, more expansive than the first, with a house and not a flat. As he drove me from the station, I told him I would like to say, after Genet, 'I wandered through that part of myself I called Manchester.' As though Manchester were folded within me; as though there was nothing but my life, even as it had become impersonal, even as it seemed to stream without subject. But philosophy broke that 'I' apart still further. Now a dawning sense of ethics, of politics, and not in any formulated sense.
What was literature? Whatever it was, it was also a passion, a way of indicating that nothingness, that virtuality in which the world turns. And didn't it point to a task, to a way of living, of folding what the world was not into the world? What it was not, what it was - but now in a sense more expansive than the world which seemed absolute as I was growing up. For hadn't I learnt, and almost from the first, of the impossiblity of politics - of politics fallen into managerialism, into administration?
By literature, by philosophy - and by that metaphysic that held both together, turning in one another - I retrieved, and by way of my repetition of the past (Kierkegaard's gjentagelse) a sense of the contingency of the world in which I grew up. Things could have been otherwise; it was possible to live another way. No need to sigh after another life, to mourn the death of culture, or its retreat to the university - tendencies I still had, and were not burnt from me for many years.
For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life - all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.
What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself - I still ask - whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read - and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked - and ask today - whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.
Compelled - I use this word deliberately. Sometimes I close my eyes and dream again of the ambition of the great avant-gardes to unite art and life into a blazing whole. Or to annul art, or to lift it, by letting it become life, and nothing other than life. How to live, and collectively, what vouchsafes itself in Rimbaud, in Lautreamont? This is a dream that steered me through what I tried to write elsewhere.
But let me put those thoughts aside. I began this post to speculate as to why I reacted with disquiet to Josipovici's review of Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet in the TLS when I reread it yesterday. That is, I wanted to surf the affects that review awakened: on the one hand, a sense that I must be wrong, and Disquiet is a rag bag that takes second place to the poems, that it is, as Josipovici say unconvincingly the work of Bernardo Soares, who is too close to Pessoa himself.
And on the other? That the work is instructive because Soares is worn away to become not Pessoa, but Pessoa, too worn away: that its disquiet is what condemns it sprawl, as though it was the whole of a tradition that was spilling out like a river into the ocean. Spilling out into the vast indifference of Pessoa's twentieth century and our twenty first. Literature is finished; literature is lost - and the only literature is that which knows it began with loss, that its inception coincides with the collapse of the world that could give it place.
In that case, I tell myself it must always reach us from without, and even despite itself. That it might be missed, and reading is a welcoming excavation that must pore over a text, reading it along its grain and against it, looking for its metaphysic, or even tearing its declared metaphysic from the itself. But that is only to say, I love the work for that it embodies a metaphysic, that it lives it and trembles with it; that it comes to embody a philosophy or a counter-philosophy: embody it and not merely state it, the spirit of the text being its density, its thickness, the way the details it recounts seem to point beyond themselves to that reserve literature seems peculiarly able to mark (but then it is, after all, made of language).
Is this a betrayal? Is it to read philosophically what demands to be approached by other, gentler means? Or is it to know literature as research - that the extra-literary is part of literature, and that it is also a summons to live as though the world could be different?